The bouncy music of SLIM RHODES: Memphis, 1950-1956

For over twenty years, the Slim Rhodes Show was an institution on Memphis radio. Starting out as a family group, the Rhodes maintained this characteristic through three generations despite a continually changing supporting cast.

Originally from Arkansas, James K. Rhodes formed a group called tte Log Cabin Mountaineers in Poplar Bluff, Missouri in 1936. At the core of the group were James’ three sons;: Ethel Cletus ‘Slim’ Rhodes, vocalist and guitarist ; Hillburn ‘Dusty’ Rhodes, vocalist and fiddle player ; and Gilbert ‘Speck’ Rhodes, bass player and comedian. The early group was completed by Dusty’s wife, Bea, a singer.
Slim was the eldest of the sons, born in 1913 in Pocahontas, Arkansas and the leader of the group. Working in Missouri – Arkansas border, the Log Cabin Mountaineers drew upon the sounds of Western swing emanating from Texas and the south west, together with the musical traditions of the Ozark mountains.

From the outset, though, the band was also a localised purveyror of prevailing music trends. Particularly after Slim gained a regular radio show on KWOC in Poplar Bluff in 1938, he came to recognize the value of balancing his natural feel for western swing with a responsiveness to public demand. Two decades later, Slim Rhodes’ Memphis recordings would form a chronological illustration of changing musical times in Memphs, from western swing to hillbilly to rock’n’roll.

The Rhodes band continued to operate as the Log Cabin Mountaineers during the early part of the 1940s, appearing not only on KWOC but on KLCN, Blytheville, Arkansas and KARK in Little Rock, Arkansas. Then, in 1944, the band joined WMC in Memphis and commenced a noontime country music show that ran almost daily until Slim’s death in 1966. For the latter half of this 22 year residency, the Rhodes Show also appeared n WMC TV and provided a platform for many aspiring local musicians. This experience came in useful when Speck later joined the nationally networked Porter Wagoner TV show out of Nashville in the 1970s and 1980s.

By the time they moved to Memphis, the Log Cabin Mountaineers had obtained the sponsorship of a floor company. They worked on WMC as the Mother’s Best Mountaineers. Their popularity increased through the 1940s to the point in 1950 when they were a natural target for Sam Phillips and his newly-opened recording enterprise.

Let’s take then the shortest possible digression from Slim Rhodes and his brothers, to introduce their guitarist : Brad Suggs (also called “Pee Wee”, “L.B.” or “Junior”) had his first professional affiliation with the Loden Family, around 1950. Sonny Loden, the later Sonny James, sang and played fiddle with the group. He wanted Suggs to go on the road with him, but Brad was married and had family obligations, so he chose not to.

Brad Suggs

Instead, he went to work with the Slim Rhodes band, once again joining a family group of musicians. Suggs played with them when he first got to Memphis until he went into the Army. They were going to send him to Korea, but he had two brothers who had already died in the war (Suggs came from a family of twelve), so he was allowed to stay Stateside. After his demob, probably in 1954, he went back to work for Slim Rhodes.

Suggs played guitar with the Rhodes band on all their Sun recordings, appearing as a featured vocalist on three of them in 1955-56: “Don’t Believe” (Sun 216), “Are You Ashamed Of Me” (Sun 225) and “Bad Girl” (Sun 238), all country ballads.

Like several other Sun alumni (Charlie Feathers, Malcolm Yelvington, Little Milton, Jimmy Haggett), Suggs also made a brief trip across town to record a rockabilly single for Lester Bihari’s Meteor label in 1956 (“Bop Baby Bop”/”Charcoal Suit”, Meteor 5034). But his true home territory was 706 Union Avenue. Brad hung around Sun a lot in those days. One thing led to another and he started doing studio work as a guitarist. Among the records he plays on are “Ubangi Stomp” by Warren Smith and “Hillbilly Music Is Here To Stay” by Jerry Lee Lewis.

UBANGI STOMP
(Charles Underwood)
WARREN SMITH (Sun 250, 1956)
Well I rocked over Italy and I rocked over Spain
I rocked in Memphis, it was all the same
Well, I rocked through Afrika and rolled of the ship
And seen them natives doin’ an odd lookin’ skip
I parted the weeds and looked over the swamp
Seen them cats doin’ the Ubangi-stomp
Ubangi-stomp with the rock and roll
Beats anything that you’ve ever been told
Ubangi-stomp, Ubangi-style
When it hits, it drives a cool cat wild
Well I looked up the chief, he invited me in
He said, a heep big jam session’s ’bout to begin
He handed me a tom-tom, I picked up that beat
That crazy thing sent shivers to my feet
I rocked and I rolled and I skipped with a smile
I done the Ubangi-stomp, Ubangi-style
Well we rocked all night and part of the day
Had a good rockin’ time with the chief’s daughter May
I was makin’ good time and a-gettin’ to know
Then the captain said son, we gotta go
I said that’s alright, you go right ahead
I’m gonna Ubangi-stomp ’till I roll over dead
Courtesy Black Cat Rockabilly Europe
http://blackcatrockabillyeurope.com

Phillips recorded eight sides with the band under Slim’s name in 1950 for release on Gilt Edge Records of California. Concentrating on boogie and swing based styles, the Gilt Edge discs featured Slim and Dusty on vocals with fine fiddle and steel support spiced with energetic electric solos from Pee Wee Suggs.

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In 1955, Sam Phillips recorded the Rhodes band again, this time for Sun. Despite a similar line-up to that of the Gilt-Edge era, the sound of the band was now much more hillbilly influenced. Subsequent sessions developed further, toward a rockabilly sound, and Slim’s vocalists changed from the swing balladeers (Slim, Dusty and Brad) to rockabillies like Sandy Brooks and Hayden Thompson (*).

1958. Perhaps Sandy Brooks on mike

Under the competition of a newer generation of rockabilly combos, Slim Rhodes soon found himself dropped from the Sun label. Although he did make several other recordings for labels like Cotton Town Jubilee, including an interesting promotional disc for Hart’s bread on the Hart’s label, Slim mainly concentrated on radio and TV work. New generations of the family came through, from sister Dot (who also recorded as Dottie Moore on King) to Slim’s niece Sandra Rhodes who at one time pursued a solo career with Fantasy Records, and sang as a backup singer on countless sessions at Hi Records.

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The full story of the Rhodes band would take more space than is available here, and much more work remains to be done in interviewing members of the Rhodes band and fleshing out the contribution they made to country music in the mid-south. (Martin Hawkins, 1986)
(*) It is probably an error from Mr. Hawkins, as it is highly improbable that Hayden Thompson, out of Tupelo, MS., ever sang with Slim Rhodes.

Aknowledgements: Martin Hawkins (“Good Rockin’ Tonight”, book of 1996); generous use of 78worlds; music from various sources; Hillbilly-music.com for several details and pictures.

Try to find the 1996 CD on Gee-Dee

Discography of Slim Rhodes is available on the Praguefrank site: https://countrydiscography.blogspot.com/2011/02/slim-rhodes.html